UK wind power shattered records last
spinning out 22 per cent of electricity
demand for a day. One in five of our morning cups of tea was
renewably-powered, if you like.
In fact, the amount of power generated by renewable sources of
electricity in the UK was record breaking through much of the
1990s… and in every single year since 2004 (graph, below).
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. We’ve
building a lot of windfarms, solar panels
and biomass conversions recently.
Back when Britpop was cool in the early 90s a measly 2 per cent
of UK electricity came from renewables. Almost all of that was from
hydropower. By 2013, as Miley Cyrus twerked her way to the top of
the charts, the UK got 15 per cent of its electricity from
renewables, with more than half of it coming from windfarms.
Helpful infographic by Carbon Brief.
Miley Cyrus / Shutterstock
The hot streak for renewable records in the UK is set to
Even under the lowest projections from the Department from
Energy and Climate Change (DECC) we should continue to see
record-breaking levels of renewable electricity until the end of
the decade (pink line, below).
every renewable technology meets the most optimistic DECC
projections then renewable electricity output will triple by 2020
Despite this undeniable progress, the UK’s 63 million
inhabitants (0.9 per cent of the world’s population) use only about
1.5 per cent of the world’s electricity. Unless the rest of the
world joins in, the UK decarbonising isn’t going to change
Luckily we’re not alone. The US (light blue line, below) got a
record 14 per cent of its power from renewables in the first
half of 2014. Other European countries (dark blue), China (purple)
and the rest of the world (grey) have also been busy smashing
China overtook the US in 2005 and the EU in
2008, and is now the undisputed global emperor of renewable
electricity generation. It’s lead is set to grow. Over the next 20
years China is
expected to install more renewable capacity
than the combined green energy additions of the US, EU and Japan
At a global level this will also continue until at least 2020,
according to a new
report from the International Energy Agency (IEA). It expects
renewable power output to surge from 5,070 terawatt hours of
electricity in 2013 to 7,310 terawatt hours in 2020. That’s a 45
per cent increase at an annual growth rate of over five per
So are we actually decarbonising?
In the UK, the answer is yes – slowly. Electricity consumption
has been falling since around 2005 (purple area, below left). And
at the same time, as we’ve already seen, renewable electricity
generation has increased (blue area, below left).
But comparing renewables against other forms of electricity
generation (below right), you can see there’s still a long way to
go if the UK wants to get most of its electricity from renewable
There’s a broadly similar story across the EU, with electricity
demand falling slightly (purple area, below left) and renewables
taking a growing share of the mix (blue area, below right). About
25 per cent of EU electricity comes from renewables – including
hydro and biomass.
But when it comes to the world as a whole, something different
has been happening.
Global renewable electricity output has more than doubled since
the early 90s (blue area, below left). But global electricity
demand has also shot up. (Purple area, below left). That’s because
rapidly developing countries like China have built huge numbers of
fossil-fired power stations to power growing cities and
This means the renewable share of global electricity generation
(blue area, below right) hasn’t really changed much over the past
20 years. When Blur was topping the charts in 1994 the world’s
electricity supply was 20 per cent renewable. Today the figure is
22 per cent.
It’s just that it’s happening at the same time
as a revolution in living standards, with billions of new consumers
hooking up to the electricity grid and millions more buying the
latest power-hungry flat-screen TVs, made in China.
The IEA expects these twin revolutions to
continue. Even though renewable power output will expand rapidly,
its share of total electricity generation around the world will
reach just 26 per cent in 2020.
Nevertheless, we can expect renewables to continue
to demolish records – much like a wrecking ball. If we want
renewables to help limit global temperatures to no more than two
degrees, there’s no other way.